2005-11-11 / Columnists

From the Editor’s Desk

By Howard Schwach


Saturday, November 5 was my birthday. It was also the 400th anniversary of the infamous ‘Gunpowder Plot,” known widely as “Guy Fawkes Day in England.

What’s the point?

That the faith-based terrorism we face today is nothing new. November 5, 1605 proves that killing in the name of religion has been around for a lot longer than Osama bin Laden.

In the early hours of that long-ago day, officials of England’s King James I got an intelligence lead that Guy Fawkes and 36 barrels of gunpowder were hidden in a storeroom on the ground floor of Westminster Palace, where Parliament was to meet later that day.

Fawkes was a devout Catholic outraged by the treatment of him and his co-religionists by the Anglican majority. The Roman Catholic conspirators planned to blow up the King, his wife and sons as well as members of Parliament.

He and his co-conspirators hoped to establish a Catholic government in England.

Fawkes had the fuses in his hand when police barged in and arrested him, ending the plot.

Fawkes and his mates were quickly tried, sentenced and “economically” executed.

In 1606, Parliament passed a law making November 5 a “Day of annual thanksgiving and commemoration of God’s intervention to save the king, parliament and the nation.” All of the nation’s subjects were to attend Anglican Churches that day.

The day is still celebrated as a holiday in England, complete with bonfires, fireworks and speeches. Guy Fawkes has become something of a folk hero, wrongheaded, perhaps, but brave and loyal to his religion. Fawkes is burned in effigy throughout the realm; children who fill old clothing with crumbled newspaper to look like a man make the “guys”. Tradition is that the children show their “guys” to passersby, asking for “A penny for the guy.”

There is even a children’s poem, “Remember, remember the fifth of November. Gunpowder, treason, plot. I see no reason why gunpowder and treason should ever be forgot.”

Originally, the holiday focused on the Pope as the perpetrator of the crime rather than Guy Fawkes and people burned an effigy of the Pope on November 5. In Boston, it was long celebrated as “Pope’s Day.”

There were parades, bonfires and vandalism that often made the city edgy.

Of course, faith-based terrorism did not begin in 1605.

Witness, of course, the largest “ethnic cleansing” expedition on record – The Crusades.

Crusaders marched through Europe on their way to the Holy Land, killing as many Jews along the way as they could. After all, why go all the way to the Holy Land to kill the Muslim infidels when you can kill Jewish infidels closer to home.

Of course, more people have died in the name of religion than for any cause throughout recorded history. And, the ethnic and religious warfare continues today. Jews and Arabs in the Middle East; Protestants and Catholics in Ireland (although it has quieted down for a while); Any tribe and any other tribe in Africa. Muslims and Serbs and many others.

Look at our own History. The very first settlers to this land, the Pilgrims, a group of Catholic Puritans, persecuted in their own country because of their religion, Roger Williams in Rhode Island, the Catholic settlers in Maryland, all came here seeking one thing – religious freedom.

They knew first hand what happens when a state religion forces its beliefs on a minority population that fervently believes otherwise.

In England, the Anglican religion held sway and Catholics and others were badly mistreated, arrested and even killed for their religious beliefs.

When our Founding Fathers, not so far removed from those who came to America seeking religious freedom, wrote the Bill of Rights, one of the first issues they addressed was religion.

They wanted to assure not only that there would never be a state religion in the new nation, but that everybody would be free to practice the religion of their choice free from government interference.

They wanted to insure that the minority would never suffer the intolerance of the majority.

Which brings us to today and the neo-conservative religious right, who would love to see everybody believe what they believe, sure in their belief that they are “right.”

The neo-conservatives see the “Establishment Clause” of the First Amendment not as the law of the land, but as a minor stumbling block to everybody believing what they believe. Like a good defense counsel, they want to manipulate the law to find a way around it and bring their “knowledge” to the unbelievers.

That is scary.

In 1994, an evangelical historian named Mark Noll wrote a polemic about his own religion. Franklin Foer wrote about that book in a recent column. The book was called “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind,” and, according to Foer, the book lamented the “Intellectual disaster of fundamentalism,” and the fact that there were no questions left unanswered.

It is dangerous when people who have all of the answers and no longer seek knowledge hold sway over our government.

Yet, that is what is happening. Look at the Supreme Court, for example.

Now, I believe that the President has the right to pick people of like political philosophy to the Supreme Court if they are qualified.

It is troubling, in light of history, however, when that majority is made up of people not with like political philosophies, but with like religious philosophies. There is a very large difference.

Add Samuel Alito to Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and John Roberts, and you have five admittedly-conservative Catholics that will undoubtedly quickly form a majority of the nine-member court that will insure that Catholic values and ideals will be imposed on the rest of us who may not believe in that particular religion, or in any religion at all.

Protestants in this country argued that, as the majority, they should be able to have the King James version of the Bible taught in public schools, a work that described the Pope as a “man of sin.”

There are those who believe that I am anti-Catholic because I support public schools and often excoriated Catholic (and Jewish) activists and politicians when they acted to harm the community. I am not. I am, however, anti-religion in public affairs.

Now, the Catholics will hold sway and our schools will probably be teaching a thinly-veiled version of Creationism called “Intelligent Design.” If that is not a violation of the Establishment Clause, I don’t know what is, but it will be okayed by a majority of the Supreme Court – one that is driven not by law or by Stare Deices, but by religious belief.

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